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Dealing with Asbestos Risk

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Health & Safety

First published in the December 2020 issue of Quarry Management 

Asbestos Audit Ltd highlight the top three most common hazards and explain how to prevent exposure in the workplace

Asbestos can cause severe damage to the lungs if inhaled, yet was a commonly used substance between the 1950s and 1980s owing to its many structural advantages, including its excellent tensile strength, resistance to chemical attacks and inability to conduct heat. Although the use of asbestos has been banned in numerous countries around the world, the UK being one of them, it can be present in many older buildings and structures that still exist today.

There is now much more knowledge about the dangers of asbestos than there was several decades ago, yet when in the vicinity of structures that contain asbestos, the risk of exposure remains. This article highlights the top three hazards that are commonly associated with asbestos fibres and how to prevent exposure to them.

Hazard 1: Accidentally disturbing asbestos 

Whether done by accident or intent, disturbing asbestos is a hazard that could have severe implications on a person’s health in the years to come. When it is disturbed, there is a risk of inhaling the tiny fibres that are released, which cling on to the alveoli in the lungs, ultimately causing scarring of the lung tissue. 

Knowing just when and where this hazard could become a possible problem is a common concern. In short, asbestos disturbance has the potential to happen anywhere, since buildings that were constructed before the 2000s are quite likely to contain asbestos fibres. When refurbishing or working on ceilings, insulation, doors, panels, walls and floors, there is a risk of disturbing asbestos. 

Hazard 2: Removing asbestos illegally 

Not only does the removal of asbestos illegally pose a threat to everyone involved, it is also a hazard to those that will occupy the building or structure after it has been completed. Although hiring a specialist to conduct an asbestos survey to check for fibres may add to refurbishment costs, it is not something that can be avoided. 

Other than the physical threats posed by the illegal removal of asbestos, the legal matters are also a serious issue. Anyone in charge of a structural or construction project who fails to hire a specialist contractor to safely remove asbestos is in breach of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012. As a result, punishments such as extreme fines and potential sentences can be issued by the courts. 

Hazard 3: Ignoring short-term precautions 

To help prevent the disturbance of asbestos, there are a number of short-term safety precautions that should be followed. If not dealt with correctly in the short term, there are various ways that asbestos can become hazardous. For example, the use of dry cleaning techniques such as dusting or sweeping could cause asbestos fibres to be disturbed, whilst forgetting to spray surfaces with water in order to prevent the fibres from becoming airborne would also pose a hazard. 

Who is most at risk of asbestos exposure? 

Since asbestos was often used in the construction of buildings, those that work within this industry are most likely to be exposed to asbestos due to the nature of their work. In addition, those that have worked in the engineering and automotive industry could also have been exposed to asbestos in the past, as the material was also widely used in boilers and pipework and in vehicle clutches and brake pads before the 1980s. 

For those that work within any of the above-mentioned industries and hold occupations such as a carpenter, painter, electrician, plumber, shipbuilder, railway engineer or builder, it is vital to ensure that all potential asbestos hazards are taken seriously. 

Preventing exposure to asbestos: the need-to-knows

As previously mentioned, the effects of inhaling asbestos may not have an immediate impact, but can do in the years to come, leading to health conditions including asbestosis and lung and mesothelioma cancers. 

However, if asbestos is handled correctly and safely managed and contained, the hazards associated with asbestos can be prevented. To prevent exposure to asbestos, the following health and safety measures should be followed: 

  • Identify if asbestos is present: If you have to conduct maintenance work on non-domestic premises, you have a duty to check for asbestos fibres in building structures. It is always best to assume asbestos is present in old buildings, until you know otherwise, and you should have the premises surveyed and analysed to be sure.
  • Conduct a risk assessment: If asbestos is present, determine who could potentially be at risk of exposure to it and whether avoiding disturbance of the fibres is possible. If a licensed contractor that specializes in asbestos surveying is required, it is essential that they are contacted before starting any work.
  • Provide training to all those involved: Businesses must provide adequate asbestos health and safety training to employees.
  • Follow all advice provided: If asbestos is present, a guidance sheet should be provided and it is vital that this is not ignored.
  • Always use PPE: For those in charge of the job, the correct PPE must always be provided to staff to ensure their safety. Moreover, the correct decontamination process for all equipment, tools and PPE should be carried out.
  • Safely dispose asbestos waste: It is vital that the disposal of asbestos is taken seriously, and any waste is double-bagged and discarded at a licensed tip. 

If dealt with correctly, the risks of asbestos exposure can be minimized. That said, it is important that all potential hazards associated with asbestos are assessed and the correct health and safety measures are followed. For those working in an occupation that naturally increases the risk of asbestos exposure, determining whether you are likely to come into contact with these fibres is essential before any work is conducted. 

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